National Review Online has leveled a serious charge at George W. Bush, who recently said many US nuclear weapons are "expensive relics of dead conflicts." In his proposal to dramatically reduce their number, and to do so unilaterally, the magazine claims that Bush has shifted to attack Gore "from the Left." The website further raises the specter of 1970-style nuclear disarmament campaigns and the left-wing ideological baggage associated with anti-nuke hippies. The attitude seems to be: How can W. have fallen for this? Is this Clintonian triangulation at its worst?
Now, let’s ask a more pointed question: how could any sensible person be alarmed — a decade after the end of the Cold War — about reducing the US nuclear stockpile of more than 10,000 warheads? The Clinton administration, far from encouraging global reductions, has urged Russia not to reduce its nuclear stockpile but rather to forsake any deep reductions in nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. Any sensible president would be pursuing the opposite course: reducing nukes as an act of good will and thereby encouraging Russia to do what Russia has offered to do already.
So why is National Review complaining? It is a reflex derived from political history. The post-1952 conservative movement, to its eternal discredit, developed a love affair with nuclear weapons. With NR leading the way after 1955, the conservative movement worked to turn Republicans into cheerleaders for the Democrats’ nuclear arms and to debunk those who feared them. Both Nixon and Reagan were sensible enough to reject their warmongering for the path of disarmament and peace. They may have done so too little and too late, but at least they forged ahead.
Think about what it meant for the Right that it became the pro-nuke party. A movement ostensibly wedded to the ideals of limiting government and expanding freedom came to celebrate a weapon that, by its very nature, threatens mass destruction on a scale unimaginable in any previous century.
Nuclear war is the ultimate big government program. A foreign policy that prepares for one ensures that the government will always have more power than its citizens. A nuclear weapon is incapable of distinguishing between civilians and soldiers; it holds both hostage in a war game played by nation-states. Indeed, the citizenry living under nuclear weapons must live in fear, and trust the government not to annihilate the world.
A government that has the power to blow up whole nations cannot be expected to mind its own business otherwise. Inevitably, too, that power rests with the executive branch, which means that the people need not be consulted. In the US, the president can order nuclear war on his own initiative. Is there any power more shockingly unconstitutional than that? The framers would be horrified. Approving of this amounts to intellectual poison; is it any wonder that conservatives came to cheer big government as much as liberals during the Cold War?
There are historical reasons why the Right should never have embraced nukes as their own. They were created in a government-funded science project at the height of the wartime New Deal, the culmination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s statist system of industrial central planning. They were first put to use by Harry Truman, a Democrat who was also a fan of big government. The military-scientific-government cartel wanted to test the weapons — after Japan had made overtures for surrender.
Even if you accept the idea that Japan would not have surrendered without the bomb, why target cities as versus, say, an uninhabited island? And why drop two of them? The bombings were war-crimes of stunning magnitude. To this day, the US remains the only government to have used nuclear weapons as agents of indiscriminate mass killing, and of non-combatants at that. Their use is a terrible blight on US history, a nation founded on the ideals of freedom for citizens and peace with the world — an ideal that conservatives claim to uphold.
There are also moral reasons why the Right should not have embraced nuclear weapons. They violate every tenet of just war, including the rules against disproportionate response, against targeting civilians, against resorting to violence and bloodshed when negotiation is available, against the demand for unconditional surrender. The doctrine of just war has forged the rules of fighting from the earliest years in Christendom, and such rules were embraced by the leading lights of Western philosophy. The advent of nuclear weapons shredded these rules; nuclear weapons are intrinsically evil because they cannot be used justly.
Finally, the American Right was initially against nuclear arms and the Cold War that they brought on. In 1949, the great Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," put his finger on the nub of the problem: Nuclear weapons cloud the difference between defense and aggression and are as likely to foment war as work as an agent of protection. This is why Taft repeatedly denounced "a prior undertaking by the most powerful nation in the world to arm half the world against the other." The amassing and spread of nuclear weapons "makes a farce of further efforts to secure international peace through law and justice. It makes permanent the division of the world into two armed camps."
Taft continues: "I am opposed to the whole idea of giving the President power to arm the world against Russia or anyone else, or even to arm Western Europe, except where there is a real threat of aggression. We are stimulating an armament race. We are trying to restore a military balance of power on the European continent. Such policies in the past have always led to war rather than to peace."
He was saying all this in the years 1948 and 1949, which marked the beginnings of the Cold War and a Truman-fueled hysteria about the rise of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. But Taft was all-too-aware that Truman was the handpicked successor to a president who gave all of Eastern Europe to Stalin. Taft was right to suspect that Truman had not undergone an overnight conversion to stamping out collectivism; his goal was to use the politics of empire to advance the Democrat Party and its warfare state.
Also, in the year 1949, Russia gained its first nuclear weapon. That same year, the US had already stockpiled 169 of the ghastly things, after having actually used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945. Instead of negotiating peace, the US maintained a nuclear arsenal of 10 to 1 relative to the Soviet Union throughout the 1950s.
In short, Taft was right that aggressive foreign policy and nuclear buildup by the US would "stimulate an armament race." And he was right that it would lead to war: in Korea, in Vietnam, and in various other hot spots for the four decades of the Cold War that Truman began. You can see the entire ugly chronology of nuclear buildup at this chart developed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
The US looted its citizens of $3.5 trillion in private wealth in the course of this arms buildup. And all the while, the government began to disarm the civilian population through gun controls, dramatically increased taxes, diverted scientists and engineers away from life-enhancing civilian production to economically sterile bomb production, and imposed a massive welfare state that addicted the poor and the middle class to government entitlements.
Truly, the amassing of nuclear weapons sounded the death knell of the Old Republic, and if we ever intend to restore American liberties, it is imperative that we junk these weapons. This used to be a Republican position, and by calling for unilateral cuts, Bush is speaking for a far grander tradition than National Review represents. Now, if he would only rethink his endorsement of that other military-industrial boondoggle, National Missile Defense, but more on that some other time.